- nuclear does nothing to reform the grid to work off a range of highly variable and local resources
- nuclear plants are expensive and often run massively over the budget in both time and cost
- expanding nuclear will run out of affordable fuel fast
- mining is extremely dirty and harmful to the environment as well a health and safety hazard to miners and anyone in the proximity of a mine
- the link between nuclear power and weapons
- waste disposal – a massive intergenerational problem
- risks of accidents – far higher if nuclear proliferates into countries with a poor track record of managing large-scale complex systems
- decommissioning cost
Let me elaborate on the factual basis for my points.
Less-Discussed PointsRenewables require a grid (more correctly, grid plus transmission network) that works reliably with highly variable sources of power. Photovoltaics (solar panels) only produce power during daylight hours (and that is highly reduced by cloud). If wind turbines are widely distributed geographically, overall they provide a reliable source of power but not all at once. Home-based solar can give households incentives to manage power better with smart meters that discourage wasteful behaviour. It takes time to get all this working but it also takes time to do a significant-scale nuclear build. Superficially, nuclear looks easier since it replaces coal or gas power by the same type of centralized generation but with a different fuel source. But it has no requirement of a reformed grid, needed for renewables.
Building nuclear plants is complex, costly and frequently runs into massive time and cost over-runs. This has recently happened even in France, a country that can claim extensive experience with nuclear power. In a country with little or no experience of managing nuclear power projects, the risk of major cost and time overruns is even higher. South Africa’s latest coal plants, Medupi and Kusile, have run into problems of this nature and while a big coal plant is a very complex and specialized project, it is not as difficult as nuclear.
|Relatively static level of nuclear gneration|
While more expensive uranium could be mined, that takes me to the next point. Uranium is mined in several grades, from high-grade ore that’s 20% uranium in Canada to very low-grade ore in Namibia that is 100 parts per million or 0.01%. The lowest-grade ore results in 99.99% of the material mined being waste and, even in Canada, which has the highest-grade ore, there are problems with toxic radioactive waste leaching into the environment.
Those are the less-discussed issues. Now on to the more commonly discussed issues.
Commonly-Discussed PointsThere is a close link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons. Though there are very big differences in the technologies, research for weapons attracts a lot more funding than energy research. For this reason, nuclear fuels that are most similar to fissionable material needed for weapons have had the most attention. For example, thorium is far more plentiful than uranium in nature, yet has not made much progress into commercial-scale reactors despite a growing amount of research.
Then there is the issue of waste disposal, a massive problem for thousands of years into the future; the Union of Concerned Scientists summarizes the issues.
I need not elaborate on the risks of major accidents – Fukushima is the latest. If that could happen in one of the world’s most developed countries with a strong track of engineering and delivering major infrastructure projects, it is foolish to believe that the risk is not higher if nuclear plants proliferate in countries with a poor track record on such projects.
Finally there is the issue of decommissioning. France, the poster child for nuclear, with 75% of its electricity from nuclear plants, is planning to drop reliance on nuclear to 50% with a shift to renewables. While the Macron government has since slightly scaled back this ambition, it is widely agreed that French nuclear power is in trouble. Opinions vary on actual cost, but decommissioning nuclear plants is expensive. And it is a non-productive cost.